Atlanta — Just in time for the 1982 congressional elections, a controversial University of Georgia study concludes that the clout of conservative religious groups in the 1980 congressional race was bigger than previously believed.
Half of the 28 incumbents in the US House of Representatives who were primary targets of conservative religious groups were defeated for reelection, while normally, about 90 percent of House incumbents seeking reelection are successful , the study says.
The implication for November's balloting, say some political scientists: This clout may have an even bigger impact in 1982 because on average, voter turnout is lower in an off-year election. This can often leave the field to more politically active groups.
Some political scientists question the merit of the study, saying it does not disentangle the effect of the religious groups from other effects -- including the national conservative wave evident in the way Ronald Reagan was swept into office.
The question as to the actual clout of right-wing religious groups is important, especially as the next elections draw near, says Dennis Ippolito, author of a book on Congress and political science professor at Emory University in Decatur, Ga.
The subtle question, says Professor Ippolito, is whether ''the fear of being targeted (by these groups) makes them (incumbents seeking reelection) do things they might not otherwise do.''
The answer depends on the perceived clout of such groups. ''Nobody knows how big it is,'' he says. But, he adds, it may well be exaggerated, noting conflicting claims of the size of audiences of TV evangelists.
One of the best-known TV evangelists is the Rev. Jerry Falwell, who has been a key force in Moral Majority Inc., one of the religious groups targeting certain congressional candidates for defeat. Prof. Jerry Hadden of the University of Virginia estimates, after studying TV viewer ratings, that the Rev. Mr. Falwell's audience is about 2 million, compared with some claims of 25 million. Professor Hadden calls the image of the size of the TV audiences of TV evangelists ''pure puffery.''
The University of Georgia study was co-written by political scientists Charles Bulloch and Loch Johnson. Mr. Johnson is a former staff director of the US House Intelligence Oversight subcommittee.
The study focuses mainly on four groups -- Moral Majority, Christian Voice, the National Christian Action Coaltion, and the Religious Roundtable. The candidates these groups chose as targets in the 1980 House elections were compared to election results.
Even among incumbents considered to be holding safe seats -- elected in 1978 by 56 percent or more -- targeted candidates were defeated at a rate 10 times higher than nontargeted candidates, Johnson says.
''I think their potential will be even higher (in the 1982 elections) than in 1980,'' he says, because the groups continue to get better organized. ''It's amazing how skillful they are becoming at winning elections,'' he says.
The impact of religious political groups on the 1980 elections was ''significant,'' particularly in close elections and may be somewhat higher in 1982, says political scientist Martin Wattenberg of the University of Michigan's Center for Political Studies. Voter turnout in off-year elections is lower, making the consistently higher turnout of religious fundamentalists of greater impact, he says.
''Religious fundamentalism had just as much effect as political ideology'' in the 1980 elections, he says. Groups like the Moral Majority, while not popular with most Americans, have great potential for channeling the concerns of fundamentalists toward backing certain candidates.
But attributing a specific election result to a specfic group is difficult, he says.
''You don't have any real proof that the voters were aware of these groups,'' he says. Religious groups could be the key factor in an election result, but ''so could a lot of things,'' he adds.
Other factors to consider, says Michael Malbin, of the American Enterprise Institute, are how much money was spent by the challenger and the quality of the challenger.